When New York magazine published in June its hotly anticipated profile of controversial photographer Terry Richardson, it ran under the headline “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” Stating the question as a binary, phrasing it as a question at all, should have been our first tip-off that this article was going to be problematic. And it didn’t disappoint.
By now, there’s insurmountable evidence that Richardson preys on the vulnerabilities of inexperienced models, and his workplace behavior has been widely criticized. Still, his work continues to receive artistic praise and fill the pages of many magazines. Celebrities from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé to President Barack Obama have worked with him, and though a Change.org petition calling for big brands to cease using Richardson’s work has garnered nearly 35,000 supporters, there’s little movement from key figures in the fashion industry to boycott him.
I count 12 models who have spoken out about inappropriate behavior at the hands of Richardson on photoshoots. That’s not counting the others who have come forward anonymously for fear of damaging their hireability in the industry. Though their experiences range widely, not a single encounter with Richardson described by these women is workplace appropriate—not even close.
There’s Jamie Peck, who described Richardson getting naked during a shoot and pushing her to undress more than she was comfortable with. He joked about wanting to play with her tampon and, finally, Peck recalls zooming out (falling into a dissociative state) while she was coerced into giving him a handjob. She later discovered photos of her taken by Richardson that she didn’t remember posing for.
There’s Sena Cech, who was allegedly asked to grab Richardson’s penis and twist and squeeze it really hard, to the point where she thought she was hurting him. “The experience was not consensual,” she said. “It was revolting and humiliating.”
And there’s Charlotte Waters, who was 19 when she did a photo shoot with Richardson in 2009. “It’s hard not to look back at this stuff and see that I was a rapist’s dream, completely naïve and trusting, but passive and shy on top of that,” she has said. Her experience largely mimics the others’: Despite feeling deeply uncomfortable, she, too, felt unable to leave and her shoot ended with Richardson ejaculating on her face.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
In light of these allegations, it’s particularly disturbing that New York magazine writer Benjamin Wallace frames his Richardson profile in what can only be called an apologetic fashion, sidelining the negative stories and pushing Richardson-supportive points to the forefront. He treats the allegations as inconsequential, or dismisses them as inaccurate.
From the get-go, Richardson is pegged by Wallace as a sympathetic character. The headline warns you, despite what you may have heard and may staunchly believe about this man’s character, not to judge too quickly, because there’s a debate to be had here. After that, it’s pervert-denial every step of the way.
For example, four days before the New York profile was published, English model Emma Appleton alleged that Richardson, via Facebook message, tried to exchange sex for a modeling gig. Wallace dismisses her, saying it was “clearly an impersonation” of the photographer, who doesn’t have a Facebook account, and leaves the story at that. He pits Richardson’s word against a model’s, with no arbitration, no details and no discussion, quickly moving on to the next tale.
Often, Wallace will recount a very scary allegation and then transition swiftly away from it. This leaves the reader with the impression that there’s no more to hear about a story, like this one:
His shoots could get wild, and he made no secret of that. In 2002, he told Vice about his forthcoming calendar for street-style brand Supreme, the goal being ‘to put together a calendar you could jerk off to.’ The shoot, he revealed, ‘got a bit out of hand by the end. The woman producing the shoot got freaked out and had to leave. I think every person there fucked someone. It was intense.’
At that point, the writer transitions into a new section of the article: “For the past two decades, Richardson has walked and cycled the streets of New York taking pictures. …”
Obviously, this was an important story, but we’re given no further details. Who was this poor woman who was so traumatized she had to leave? Did it cost her her producing job? Was she asked to participate in the shoot, as members of Richardson’s crew often are, and got (understandably) uncomfortable?
Or, Wallace will use Richardson’s words to unconvincingly defend himself following another very scary story:
Steve-O, a member of the Jackass cast, recalls in his memoir an afternoon when Johnny Knoxville called and said, ‘Hey, I’m at Terry Richardson’s studio. He wants to do a bukkake shoot, and we’re just a few cocks short. You game?’ Richardson photographed it all. He wanted Steve-O ‘pulling a girl’s hair while I shot a load on her face and someone else pointed a gun at her head.’
‘It was never just me and a girl ever,’ Richardson told me at his studio. ‘It was always assistants, or other people around, or girls brought friends over to hang out. It was very daytime, no drugs, no alcohol. It was a happening, there was energy, it was fun, it was exciting, making these strong images, and that’s what it was. People collaborating and exploring sexuality and taking pictures.’
If he’s attempting to exonerate himself, somebody should tell Richardson it’s not working. Just because there are bystanders doesn’t make it okay. Just because people are sober and it’s light outside doesn’t make it okay. Just because it was fun and exciting and energetic for him, doesn’t mean it was for the women involved. Wallace should recognize that the placement of this Richardson quote following Steve-O’s story doesn’t mitigate how horrifying this all really is.
It’s not until halfway through the piece that Wallace begins listing, one by one, the women who have come forward with allegations against Richardson. When their stories are finally told, though, Wallace minimizes them. For example, Cech tells her story of sexual harassment and sexual coercion on the job. According to Wallace, Cech laughed as she recounted her experience. When she’s done talking, Wallace includes a parenthetical aside: “(A source close to Richardson insists that Cech was the instigator, and that she willingly returned after the casting to take sexual pictures.)”
Immediately after Wallace’s article published, Cech released a statement to Buzzfeed decrying Wallace’s account and saying she was misquoted. Far from it being a laughable experience, Cech said Richardson violated her rights and called the photoshoot “sneaky, sleazy, weird and unexpected.” She says she never returned to take more pictures. Wallace is telling falsehoods, plain and simple.
Wallace bookends the laundry list of allegations against Richardson with lengthy sections about the man’s childhood, which is described as “almost preposterously chaotic and unsupervised.” We learn that Richardson had little or no relationship with his father for much of his early life, which made Terry “soft-spoken and somewhat lost.” This propelled him to compete with his father, a photographer big in the 1960s with his own controversial story.
Richardson’s tumultuous childhood is presented as some kind of excuse that encourages the reader to be more forgiving of his present-day behavior. Dian Hanson, an editor at one of Richardson’s publishing companies, is quoted by Wallace as saying “Doing that nude work and taking his own clothes off is how he got over his own shyness.” Should we really be cheering the sexually charged and exploitative atmosphere of his photoshoots as a valid cure for shyness?
The ending of the Richardson profile is the cherry on top of the offense. The final section is a nostalgic romp about “the old Terry.” Wallace lets him reminisce:
[Richardson] often thinks about the early years of his career, before fashion shoots became big productions, when his work was still considered something new and challenging and when his transgressions were exactly what made him so exciting.
Ah, to be young. By golly, you almost forget the dozens of ethically transgressive stories you’ve just read. And here’s Richardson’s final quote, spoken while he’s flipping through old photographs he took:
So much of this stuff … it’s great, it’s emotional, to get in and work with someone, let things happen organically, just work off feelings in the moment, powerful, I love doing portraits. It’s hard to explain. Just this kind of beautiful interaction and connection you get.
After all, the man is just an artist who cares about creating something beautiful. To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. Can you really blame Terry Richardson?
Robin Jones Kerr is a journalism major and women’s studies minor at George Washington University, and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.